Novak Djokovic and the everlasting legacy of the Big Three
In 2015, when Novak Djokovic lifted his 10th grand-slam at the US Open after defeating Roger Federer, tennis commentator, Simon Reed appearing on EuroSport asked his co-commentator, Frew McMillan, "How many times do you think he will lift it? Seven away from Federer. Is it doable for him?"
McMillan had then replied, "I don't think he can match Federer's."
The rest, as they say, is history. Fast forward to the present, not only has Djokovic beat Federer but he has also broken the all-time record, previously held by Rafael Nadal. On June 11, 2023, Djokovic defeated Casper Ruud in the French Open to become the first man in history to ever hold 23 grand slams. He is the only man in history to be the reigning champion of all four majors at once across three different surfaces (2016), and the only to complete a triple Career Grand Slam (2023).
As the euphoria for fans settles in, one cannot help but take a walk down the memory lane of the last two decades of mind-blowing tennis, propelled by the everlasting legacy of the Big Three: Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The trio won sixty-five grand slam titles between themselves, with only twelve slam finals emerging with a victor not named Djokovic, Federer or Nadal.
From 2004 till 2009, Roger Federer won fourteen grand slams. Meanwhile, from 2005 onwards, Nadal began to dominate on clay, picking up four straight Roland Garros titles. Till the end of 2010, Nadal and Federer won twenty-four out of twenty-eight majors, giving birth to one of the greatest rivalries in tennis.
Then 2011 happened. Enter Novak Djokovic, springing to the summit of the world rankings. Widely regarded as one of the best seasons in tennis, Djokovic won 3 out of 4 slams, five Masters 1000 and a total of 10 titles in just a span of ten months. Suddenly, the duopoly between Nadal and Federer turned into a dangerous trio.
Three generations of tennis players have come and gone. Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin watched Federer; Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka watched Nadal and Djokovic, and now Medvedev, Thiem, Zverev are watching Djokovic. Sometimes, you cannot help but wonder what could have been of these players if they did not play tennis during the golden era of men's tennis. Would Murray and his counterparts have gone on to do bigger and better things? Would Nadal, Federer or Djokovic have won even more grand slams if their careers did not coincide with one another at the same time?
The answer, in short, is "no." The Big Three became the Big Three because they pushed each other. Federer played his game like a symphony that made people fall in love with him. Nadal brought in the grit, the power and sheer force. Djokovic walked into the pitch with a monstrous mentality, determination to play an extra ball and the speed to reach every ball.
Federer mastered his craft, Nadal nurtured it and Djokovic pushed it even further. The three elevated not only their own game but also each other's. The Wimbledon 2008, Australian Open 2012, Roland Garros 2013, Wimbledon 2019 finals are among the greatest tennis matches in the open era, all featuring the Big Three. Each of the matches went on to five sets and each point was better than the one before. The Australian Open 2012 final was the longest grand slam final in tennis history, played just seven minutes short of the six hours mark, between Nadal and Djokovic, where Djokovic emerged as the winner. Since then, Nadal and Djokovic kept meeting each other at semi-finals or finals and a new rivalry was established at the top.
Then the baton passed around on who would end their career as the greatest of all time, while each record that was set by one, was broken by the other. Nadal, who won the Roland Garros an astonishing fourteen times will go down as the greatest clay court player to have ever played the game. Federer's five US Open titles are the most in American tennis. Djokovic has won the Australian Open a record ten times and is currently aiming to match Roger Federer's eight Wimbledon titles, the most won by a male singles player. Djokovic's astonishing number of slams in each court is what makes him, at the moment, the best player across all surfaces.
In September 2022, Roger Federer tearfully bid farewell to the game he loved and the game that loved him back, marking the end of an era for the Big Three. In that moment, you could see what their rivalry meant. All three of them cried at Federer's farewell tournament, the Laver Cup. In that brief moment, tennis fans came together to acknowledge what has been the most glorified period of tennis. They have inspired the next generation of players such as Holger Rune, Casper Ruud and Carlos Alcaraz, which can be seen in the manner they play their games.
As for now, while Federer has retired and Nadal has hinted that the 2024 season may be his last one, Djokovic is the last man standing out of the Big Three. But retirement at the moment seems like a distant thought for Djokovic. Despite being a year younger than Nadal, Djokovic's body is still coping quite well against the youngsters. When the Roland Garros 2023 draw came out, the most anticipated match of the year was Djokovic vs Alcaraz, as some speculated it could be the match where the crown would be passed on to Alcaraz, the most in-form player on the tour. However, after equalising at 1 set all, Alcaraz began cramping at the start of the third set, which Djokovic capitalised on. Later in the press conference, Alcaraz admitted the cramps were likely due to the pressure and Djokovic's ability to wear him down.
For far too long, we have wondered if other players could not perform at their best, because of how good the Big Three have been. But other players came and went, due to these three giants' contributions to the sport itself, the achievements they have made and the fear their names have instilled in their opposition which gave them a mental edge and made them virtually unbeatable.
Now the question is, how much further can Djokovic go? Will the fact that there are not many records left to be broken phase out his motivation? Or will he continue to dominate in the grand slams as the sole remaining player with multiple majors? His closest rival, Rafael Nadal, is a fighter and might make one last push next season. But what is known though, is that right now, Novak Djokovic is the greatest men's singles tennis player, and he became so, by continuously showing up with unmatched spirit. Djokovic's fans, like myself, expect nothing short of him carrying the legacy forward.
Raiyan Binte Rafiq is pursuing an LLM, while freelancing for Football.Co and INDIVISA to cover UEFA Women's Champions League and Women's Super League. She also oversees recruitment in Next Level Sports Management based in Bangladesh.